Saturday, January 20, 2007

NICHOLAS D. KRISTOF: Hang Up! Tehran Is Calling

One of the most worrying parts of President Bush’s Iraq strategy doesn’t have anything to do with Iraq. It’s the way he’s ramping up a confrontation with Iran.

Across a broad spectrum of policy levers, Mr. Bush is raising the pressure on Iran, increasing the risk that he will drag the U.S. into a third war in an Islamic country in six years. Instead of disengaging from war, he could end up starting another.

We could have taken another route. In 2003, Iran sent the U.S. a detailed message offering to work together to capture terrorists, to stabilize Iraq, to resolve nuclear disputes, to withdraw military support for Hezbollah and Hamas, and to moderate its position on Israel, in exchange for the U.S. lifting sanctions and warming up to Iran.

Some diplomats liked the idea, but administration hawks rejected it at once. Lawrence Wilkerson, a former chief of staff to Colin Powell, says that the State Department sent a cable to the Swiss ambassador in Tehran, who looks after U.S. interests in Iran, scolding him for even forwarding the package to Washington.

Obviously, Iran’s offer might have led nowhere. But it’s plain where rejection of the offer has taken us: more Americans are dying in Iraq, and some experts worry about clashes with Iran itself.

The Iraq Study Group proposed engagement with Iran, but instead Mr. Bush has been escalating the rhetoric and military pressure.

“When you have such a buildup and have zero communications, and you have an arena like Iraq where you may step on each other’s toes, you could have rapid escalation,” warns Vali Nasr, an expert on the region at the Naval Postgraduate School.

It doesn’t appear that Mr. Bush wants a war with Iran. His aim seems to be a show of force to deter Iran and reassure our allies in the region. But he is on a path that may easily lead to escalation.

It’s unfortunate that we are ratcheting up the military pressure, because the administration has quietly taken one very useful step against Iran: squeezing its access to international banking transactions. That has caused real economic pain and has added to the unpopularity of Iran’s hard-line president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Those banking sanctions, not military moves, are a reason Mr. Ahmadinejad has been rebuked by the country’s supreme leader.

Unfortunately, both Mr. Bush and Mr. Ahmadinejad benefit from confrontation. Both are unpopular domestically but can use a crisis to distract from their policy failures.

“The current strategy benefits Ahmadinejad,” says Professor Nasr. “It’s going to divert attention at the popular level from democracy.”

Mr. Ahmadinejad is facing growing criticism: he has been heckled by university students and scolded in the press, and his candidates did poorly in recent elections. Ordinary Iranians love the U.S. — it’s the most pro-American country in the Middle East I’ve visited — and a civil society is struggling to be born.

“If there is any military strike on Iran, all this movement will end,” said Shirin Ebadi, the Iranian lawyer and Nobel Peace Prize winner.

Even some Republicans opposed to a “grand bargain” favor some kind of engagement. Mitchell Reiss, a former senior State Department official under Mr. Bush, proposes technical talks with Iran about drug trafficking and maritime security. “Even if they are a nonstarter for Tehran, I think we score points in the region for trying,” Ambassador Reiss said.

Granted, Mr. Bush is right to be frustrated by Iran and the way it’s defying the international community with its nuclear program.

Unfortunately, Mr. Bush’s military pressure may end up making Iraq bloodier than ever. Instead of being cowed, Iran may use its proxies in Iraq, Afghanistan, Lebanon and elsewhere to kill more American officials and troops.

Or even ordinary Americans here at home. “It’s a pretty good assumption that they have, if not operatives, at least sympathetic actors and affiliated groups” in the U.S., said Henry Crumpton, the State Department coordinator for counterterrorism.

Mr. Bush is absolutely right to denounce Iran’s leaders for stealing elections, suppressing their people and dabbling in terrorism. But we ourselves are partly to blame for the awful government in Tehran.

By instigating a coup in 1953 and seeking special legal privileges for American troops in 1964, we empowered extremists like Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and allowed them to tap nationalist outrage. So it would be in keeping with tradition if Mr. Bush, by shortsightedly stoking a confrontation with Tehran, now inadvertently helped Iranian hard-liners crush Iran’s democracy movement.

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